Platform Based Musicianship

hey lines!

I’m currently writing a paper on musicians who use instruments like Eurorack and Open-Source stuff that guarantee some level customizability. This customizability can be from the musician (purchasing different modules, substantially editing an instrument’s behavior) or from a builder/creator (DIY modules that are meant for Eurorack standard, developing scripts for Norns, developing modules for VCV Rack or even making derivative software from open source stuff).

Also, I consider these tools instruments because of the amount of “playability” they offer compared other tools like the DAW. I think the playability factor is a big one when considering if a musical tool is an instrument or not.

I’m calling this phenomenon “platform based musicianship” since the musician relies on a platform of standardizations in order for them or other builders to contribute to it.(Eurorack’s panel size and power specifications, the hardware and software of Norns, etc).

A huge question I have is how these platform based instruments affect the music that is created. I only have my experiences to draw from, so I thought I’d pose the question to you all. How do these platform instruments affect your music? Do you write music differently when you have a platform of sound tools/instruments centered around one device like Eurorack or Norns? Do you approach music differently with the notion that you can change your instrument’s characteristics fairly easily?

Also, what genre of music do you all generally write? Are platform instruments disposed to certain genres?

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I’ve been thinking about your question quite a bit and have come to the conclusion that I don’t have the vocabulary to precisely express what my opinion on the matter is. Regardless, here’s a brief attempt.

For me the modularity and flexibility of eurorack or norns surely prompts experimentation, doing things differently, and thus results in different sounds and different music.

But I believe that the user interface is a much greater factor than modularity/flexibility. Give me a guitar and I will make “guitar music” within my skills. Give me keys – regardless if it is a physical keyboard or a virtual piano roll in a DAW – and I tend to gravitate towards arpeggios.

Norns scripts, various more experimental mobile apps and eurorack provide a very different and unique interface and this triggers a vastly different workflow in me, different thoughts and ideas. Every time, without fail.

Not only do the unique interfaces and workflows result in music that is different from “guitar music” or “piano music” but generally speaking one piece is potentially vastly different from the next. More so than what I tend to do with a guitar

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This can be seen as a question of motivation to commitment.
Choosing an open platform gives me confidence of long product lifespan and thus confidence in getting a return of investment on the time spent learning its mastery.
Let’s contrast this with a negative example. I am a certified Final Cut 7 professional. Now read the history of Final Cut. The same history can never repeat with a FOSS tool like blender.
On the other hand, I make a living from proprietary software. And that software is far more streamlined to getting things done than any free tools. When I want quick Realisation of ideas, I work with those proprietary tools, even though I fear lock in or deplatforming.
There is a difference between the needs of creativity and efficient expression of ideas. This can be a tension. Euro rack is tedious, but inspiring. So the choice of platform is not just a question of efficiency or longevity, but also of language. A platform can be a good choice, because it inspires you to follow it’s call. Like the lottery that is plugging a cable into a jack. It is like the one armed bandit slot machine (read the book “habbit”.
Edit:
Another important aspect of platform choice is limitation. The examples above follow a maximalist paradigm, as in getting the most out of it. LSDJ on a Gameboy is a nice example of the opposite. It’s limitations force focus on certain techniques, not required in a full fledged daw or groovebox.

So there are many factors which form the Venn diagram. The overlap is a highly individual result determined by biography, economy, psyche and most likely many more.

I am afraid there is no easy answer, which proves your point that research is necessary. Looking forward to read your findings.

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I totally agree with you! Interface is a massive influence— the classic example being Hector Berlioz holding that him not knowing how to play piano (not thinking in piano terms when writing music) made him a much better composer because he was able to escape that keyboard interface paradigm (he was a guitar player actually).

But I do think it’s important to recognize that while Eurorack, Norns, etc. all have interchangeable interfaces, there are still key consistencies across different module/script setups.

The voltage paradigm in Eurorack absolutely affects how one thinks about composing music, and is consistent across every module setup and patch. For example, Pure Data and Max/MSP are other modular music environments, but have completely different methods for data connection. Eurorack has voltage, attenuators, VCAs, offsets, gates, triggers, etc. while PD and Max generally deals with streams of numbers. In my experience, you end up composing slightly different music with each method. Of course, as you say, the difference isn’t as large compared to disparate instruments like guitar and piano.

I think it’s this interplay between consistent interface and flexibility in platform instruments that make them really interesting. Trying to understand that relationship and how it affects the music being created on them is definitely tricky to parse out.

Perhaps the answer is exactly as you say, interface is the driving factor in creativity. And platform simply allow a composer to put on different “compositional hats” as the interface is shifted slightly. Of course though, there is that consistent interface (voltages, numbers, physical interface, etc) that give the composer familiarity between interfaces as to not be totally alienated every time they rearrange their instrument.

Sorry for the rambling, hopefully that all makes at least some sense :slight_smile:

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I love the economic and practical considerations here…very important to always keep in mind!

Yes, I certainly agree that platform instruments can be purposefully constrained, and that they don’t have to be maximalist. That is certainly an important consideration— because even with more maximalist platform instruments like Euroack, they do certainly have their constraints that limit it (in the Eurorack case, often physical space).

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Curious to hear what examples outside of modular software/hardware qualify as ‘platforms’ as you conceive of them. (Asking by way of trying to wrap my head around your topic.) @Majora

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of course! At least at the moment, I think platform instruments constitute things like Eurorack, Norns, VCV Rack, and really anything that allows others to contribute to its development under a single, shared framework.

Analogs to platform instruments are things likes social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram), forum platforms (Reddit), rideshare/food delivery platforms (Uber, Doordash). I think a lot of softwares and hardwares today are moving towards a platform paradigm with the increased accessibility to the internet.

I also like to think of platform instruments as falling in between a spectrum, with traditional instruments on one side, and electronic instruments on the other. Traditional instruments, such as the guitar, provides a very consistent interface and overall design. If it deviates from this form, it is no longer deemed a guitar, and requires a qualifier (12-string guitar, banjo guitar, 3/4 guitar, etc). As a result, innovation in this realm is very subtle. Innovation beyond this will just make a new instrument, which most likely requires a different specialized skillset (guitar skills v. banjo skills).

Electronic instruments (at least in its early years) had the opposite problem. Lots of substantial innovation (Moog v. Buchla v. Serge v. Roland, etc.), but skills weren’t necessarily as translatable as the traditional instrument realm. Playing a Les Paul v. a Strat is an easy transition for the musician, but Moog to Buchla, despite both being modular synths, was more difficult. This issue was heightened with newer synthesis forms like FM or CZ series stuff that made skills even less transferable. Not too mention all the myriad interfaces like keyboards v. touch plates and different standards in voltage/control methods.

I see platform instruments as electronic instruments becoming more like traditional instruments, but without losing the eclectic nature of its early roots. To put it simply, platforms allow synthesizers to become more homogenized without sacrificing the varied interfaces and synthesis methods. It is a hybridization of the two.

I think this development has been occurring since MIDI was invented, and has now reached a critical point with the advent and popularization of the internet.

Hopefully that all made sense. I’m using this topic also as a way to refine my own theory on platform instruments, so if anything doesn’t make sense, just let me know :slight_smile:

Edit. Tagging @OhWell

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I think this is an interesting way to approach thinking about instrumentation but I think some more work needs to be done on the definition. I would disagree thoroughly with the idea that the guitar represents a “traditional” instrument with a consistent interface. Most guitarists in my experience don’t think of a 12-string, resonator, etc as a instrument deviating from a pure “true guitar” but as different points on continuum of fretted, stringed instruments. When you look at the history of electric guitars this gets even fuzzier (pun intended) - amplification, pickups, pedals - most of the innovative developments in electrification came from musicians playing around with (hacking) their own instrumentation. If that’s not the definition of an open platform I’m not sure what is.

I also think there is a bit of flattening on the “platform” as a physical object (3u, rack mounted, v/Oct, +/- 12 v), and the “platform” as an approach to composition. Many famous, innovative electronic musicians moved freely between composing for a modular or electronic system that they had a heavy hand in selecting/developing, and producing more traditional symphonic arrangements. Likewise, there’s a rich history of composers making radical changes in what constitutes an orchestra. To me the big difference between playing guitar and patching my modular is that the modular acts as a cognitive partner in composition, the same way an orchestra might in a composition that asks them to make judgements or choices. Vangelis says this directly in an interview that he considers the orchestra to be the first “synthesizer,” a sentiment which i think a lot of people would disagree with but does have a nugget of truth.

So is the electric guitar system a platform? Are orchestras a platform? What definition do you provide that includes or excludes these approaches to music?

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This is interesting. On the one hand, If we rule out the guitar as a traditional instrument, ‘traditional instrument’ starts looking like an empty set to me. But I agree with the thought that all instruments can be approached/treated like ‘platforms’. Eg Keith Rowe w. guitar. Or e.g. the way some drummers use the snare like a resonator/amp for other objects. The whole family of ‘prepared instrument’ techniques, really.

I guess I guess I like keeping the traditional instrument category, understood along the lines of having a primary, intended sound production method and interface (press keys on the piano, pluck and fret, blow the reed + press the keys). But also acknowledging that all traditional instruments can be used as traditionally intended, or can be approached like open ended, extendable platforms.

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I’d argue that electric guitar is just as open-ended as modular synthesis. The guitar string via the pickup is functionally a polyphonic oscillator, the tone control is a rudimentary filter, pedals are modules, the amp is a distortion-based waveshaper. I’ve always thought it was a missed opportunity that pedals don’t have expression inputs for all of the knobs. Then you could have control pedals like LFOs, sequencers, expression pedals, etc modulate arbitrary pedals. If you listen to Hendrix, Sonic Youth, Joni Mitchell, Taylor Swift - do they sound like one instrument or a platform for different expressions?

Defining “platform” as an approach rather an instrument type resonates with me and I can think of a lot of examples on both sides. There are great musicians who have approached their instrument as something to interrogate and modify and musicians that have treated it as something to master and explore as a given object, and those that have done both.

I feel like a lot of my favorite discussions on lines are about what these ‘intended methods’ are in the world of electronic music, how to respect and grow them, and how to go beyond them.

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i’ll admit that the word ‘platform’ catches somewhat unpleasantly on my ear as a way to describe the relationship between the musician and the potential space of an instrument or instruments.

there are surely standards (maybe just defined as simply ‘more common approaches’) across instruments and within musical tradition and those two sets of standards are constantly informing each other throughout generations of musicians, certain approaches gaining momentum and prominence and others losing it, but i’m not entirely sure what is trying to be described here.

i sort of wonder if there’s a temptation to begin all conception of musical creation with the creation of the instrument that the musician uses. did Debussy’s works begin the moment the spruce tree that would become his piano was cut down? do voltage standards drive the creativity of musicians that use modular components today? what then do we do with the singer?

maybe i just associate a ‘platform’ as something that is somewhat static and is being given some credit for the musical work being created with the ‘platform’, which honestly just feels like such a reversal of my personal perspective.

i think the drive to explore and create sound drives the creation of new tools and that those tools (standardized or not) often fall short adequately aiding expression of the thing the musician is aiming for, which necessitates the creation of new ways, over and over, forever.

i do think there’s a very interesting discussion surrounding the feedback cycle electronic instruments inform electronic musicianship. the prominence of repetition in electronic music and the evaporation of tempo rubato are real things that I often don’t feel are real choices by musicians, but are sometimes inflicted by the tools, but that is as much a musical tradition as any method for voicing chords on a keyboard or manner of wielding a bow for a cello.

maybe i’m just feeling a bit of fatigue over this sort of classification, but it’s hard to see how this kind of definitional approach brings clarity around the manner or intentions of the musician.

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Good point on electric guitars, I seemed to have forgotten they existed lol. Bringing that into consideration, I do agree the guitar is as much a platform instrument as Eurorack. But I’m not sure this stands for other instruments.

Do violins, bassoons, Persian tars, or tubas have the same history as the guitar? I think most other instruments are more limited, and qualifiers like “amplified” or “prepared” have much more weight to them as offshoots of a pure, original instrument. I’m not commenting on traditional instruments ability to be a platform, I’m just pointing out their history and their common cultural perception. I think your right that any instrument can become a platform.

I agree with Vangelis that the orchestra can be seen as synthesizer, but I think there a crucial differences between the two. One, is that the orchestra is not an instrument. The orchestra is an ensemble that plays music off a page, in this sense, it is like a synthesizer you can program. An actual synthesizer can be both played and programmed in most cases, which (in my view) makes it an instrument.

I think the ensemble can be seen as a platform, sure. It has its constraints (physical space, often) and its variations around that (what instruments and musicians you fill within that space). But it is not a platform instrument I don’t think.

Platform instruments have the variation and constraints of ensembles all under one musician’s fingertips being manipulated/affected in real time. I think this definition is important because it defines the crucial difference between orchestras and electronics. Like you say, many musicians find attraction in both, but I don’t think they are 1:1.

I guess it depends on what time period we are talking about. In my limited exposure to modern art music it seems like a huge focus is on experimentation and extended technique. I think a big part of the reason electric guitar has been bent so far beyond its original intent is because you can buy a guitar cheaply but you can’t buy a bassoon cheaply. Synthesizers are unique in that they were expressly intended to be open-ended but any instrument is capable of a huge variety of sounds if you play it differently.

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I’m a big believer in the effects of the environment on cognition and psyche, especially as it relates to composing or playing music.

I’m a longtime bassoon player, and if you don’t know that instrument well, it has a lot of limitations. So much so, that there is a characteristic bassoonistic style of phrasing (notably static) that is pervasive even among professionals. The physical instruments affects beyond technical considerations of playing to phrasing, the biggest creative outlet for performing musicians.

So yea, I’m definitely sensitive to this style of thinking due to my background. Maybe that’s why I’m so interested in this question lol.

Also, yea, I’m not sure how much clarity this question brings to musical intention. I think baseline it’s a question of whether or not (or how much) you believe in free will. I fall in the middle: We have some agency in our intentions, but our musical tools and atmosphere sieve out incompatible ones…and once in a while you get a very idiosyncratic, passionate person who goes out and invents their own instruments and musical vocabulary to escape the environmental subjugation. But, the tools they create end up subjugating someone else’s intentions, and often don’t even totally satisfy their own. There never is really any free creative choice I guess.

I think the difference between the guitar and other “prepared” instruments is that the electric guitar and its accessories has itself become a cultural icon the way other instruments have not. Modern music’s experimentation has largely been an insular affair. Not many people know what a prepared piano is or what the intricacies of bassoon multiphonics sound like. Like I said, any instrument contains the ability to be a platform, but not all are understood as a platform in the broader sphere of public discourse.

I agree that the guitar’s low cost (and its ubiquity as a folk instrument) had allowed it to become a platform for more innovation.

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I think there’s a distinction to be drawn at the level of instrument design too. It’s helpful to have in mind what happened to western classical instruments over the course of the 18th and 19th century: for instance all the work that went into ncreased pitch to pitch timbre and intonation consistency on woodwinds and brass and dynamic range. The shift from the baroque to the boehm flute makes sense against the background of concerns about timbre, intonation, and loudness limitation of pre-boehm flutes when used with traditional technique for traditional flute sounds. There’s an expected/traditional approach to sound production designed into the history of the instrument. The same is true for guitar. Musicians don’t have to obey that design language, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Modular design is different. Calling a design language modular usually means there’s open endedness and customizability built into functions that closed designs would lock in place. (That’s not just a music thing, imo. Modularity has a long history, and applications across fields. Eg https://arussell.org/papers/47.3.russell.pdf)

To my mind one aspect of your project worth exploring is likely the distinction you want to draw, if any, between platform and modularity. I suspect whatever distinction you end up using would benefit from being informed by different applications of modularity across fields (beyond music).

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Thank you so much for the paper! I’ll certainly give it a read.

I think you are absolutely right that a distinction (if any) needs to be made between modularity and platform. They are very similar concepts.

I’ve borrowed the term “platform” from discussion around platforms like FB or Uber. Here’s a short book on the concept:

nick-srnicek-platform-capitalism.pdf (755.6 KB)

I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to the term platform is that I want to connect these platform instruments to larger networks of platforms. For example, Eurorack is made partly possible by platforms such as Arduino/Teensy. And all of these instruments benefit greatly from platforms like Reddit, lines, and modwiggler that help foster communities around them. Also, the great level of standardization/homogenization (MIDI, Eurorack standard, relatively few options for OS, ubiquity of programming languages, etc) makes all these platforms much more effective and widespread.

Without reading that paper, perhaps that is a distinction? Platforms, through the help of other platforms and general standardization/homogenization, is inherently more widespread then a modular system (i.e. virtually anyone can easily contribute to a platform). To put it simply, Platforms are modular, but modular systems are not necessarily platforms because modular systems don’t have to be widespread. Just a thought.

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